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BYU professor speaks out on lawsuit, fundraisers set up on his behalf

By Ashtyn Asay - | Jan 21, 2022

Ashtyn Asay, Daily Herald

Utah Lake is pictured from Finger Jetty Road in Utah Lake State Park on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.

After being served a $3 million lawsuit by Lake Restoration Solutions just before the Utah Lake Summit on Jan. 11, Benjamin Abbott, an ecology professor at Brigham Young University, is finally speaking out.

Abbott, who has studied Utah Lake for several years, has been outspokenly opposed to Lake Restoration Solutions’ Utah Lake Restoration Project, a proposal to dredge Utah Lake in order to make islands that could then serve commercial and recreational purposes.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 10, Lake Restoration Solutions cited some of Abbott’s statements regarding the project that had been posted to his personal blog and social media accounts in their complaint against him for defamation, false light and intentional interference with prospective economic relations.

Abbott posted an entry to his blog Thursday entitled “Lawsuits for Utah Lake,” stating that the outpouring of support from members of his community have outweighed the negativity of receiving the suit.

“Every day since this went public, I have gotten emails, text messages, and phone calls from friends, family, and strangers. This morning Josh Johnson called me and said, ‘maybe these guys didn’t know that you have 50+ cousins just on the Hansen side,'” Abbott wrote. “From my perspective, we’re all cousins, and we are many more than 50. With so many dedicated, creative, and persistent people working together, I have absolute faith that this will turn for the benefit of Utah Lake and our community. I have felt your love and the calm assurance of the Spirit every day since they dropped off their lawsuit.”

Abbott clarified that the blog post is not an official statement regarding the lawsuit, but rather his way of spreading the word about two fundraisers that have been set up to help him obtain legal counsel.

“Our goal is to not only win this case, but to use this opportunity to restore protection to Utah Lake, strengthen freedom of speech, establish strong precedent for public participation in government, and nurture a healthier and more open process for decision making in our state.” Abbott wrote.

Following the filing of its suit, Lake Restoration Solutions issued this statement: “The Utah Lake Restoration Project is at the very beginning of a lengthy environmental review process that demands the best available science be utilized, and that both data and opinion be considered from all perspectives. We welcome legitimate scrutiny of our proposal and will, through the federal NEPA process, be required to answer legitimate concerns and critiques. What we cannot tolerate, and the law does not allow, is deliberate mischaracterizations and defamatory statements. Such statements have been and will be referred to outside legal counsel.”

A fundraiser set up on Gofundme on Tuesday by Melanie McCoard entitled “Ben Abbott’s Legal Fees” surpassed its $10,000 goal Friday afternoon.

“‘Lake Restoration Solutions,’ the developers who are proposing to dredge Utah Lake, create man-made islands over 1/5th of it, and then build housing on those islands, have run up against some formidable adversaries, including BYU professor, Ben Abbott. Abbott is an expert on Utah Lake, having studied it extensively for many years,” according to McCoard’s fundraiser summary on the Gofundme page. “Now, ‘Lake Restoration Solutions’ is suing Abbott for $3 million, claiming defamation, false light, and intentional interference with prospective economic relations. The legal action constitutes a ‘SLAPP’ suit — ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.’ Utah law allows Abbott to file an ‘anti-SLAPP’ suit against the company, but he will need some financial help to do so. We should help him.”

Additionally, a Facebook fundraiser entitled “Donate to the Ben Abbott Legal Defense Fund” was set up by Conserve Utah Valley, a local conservation group that Abbott has worked closely with in the past. As of Friday afternoon, that fundraiser, which was posted to Conserve Utah Valley’s Facebook page Thursday, had raised $5,635.

“Over the past year, we’ve shared the stage with Ben, met public officials with Ben, and engaged in public dialogue with Ben. In every interaction, Ben has been civil, engaging, thoughtful, inclusive and kind. His approach is the model for how civil dialogue on important public issues should be the standard,” Conserve Utah Valley’s online post states. “Now, one of the strongest advocates for the importance of the Utah Lake ecosystem could be silenced without your help. It will take all of us to send a message loud and strong that the public must have a voice in any process, and especially one where such a drastic change to the ecosystem is proposed.”

Although Abbott is not a part of Conserve Utah Valley, according to Craig Christensen, the executive director of the organization, setting up a legal fund for Abbott was their way of helping to preserve freedom of speech within the discussion surrounding Utah Lake.

“It just doesn’t seem right to try and silence debate about this lake development,” Christensen said. “Right from the start, there’s certainly a feeling of if any one of us is to be silenced, we should all be in this together. So there was a commitment on behalf of Conserve Utah Valley that we would do everything we can to make sure that Ben gets a chance to tell his side of the story, that he has an opportunity to cover his costs. … He’s speaking out out of the goodness of his heart, for the love of the lake. No one should be able to silence that kind of discussion.”

The two funds will eventually be consolidated to form one legal fund, and according to Conserve Utah Valley’s fundraiser post, in the event that the legal fund exceeds the cost of Abbott’s legal fees, the excess will be donated to research and conservation initiatives for Utah Lake.

Abbott, whose passion for Utah Lake has not been deterred by the lawsuit, did have a word for the team at Lake Restoration Solutions.

“If you’re reading this, LRS, I’m not scared. I’ve got 50+ cousins just on the Hansen side.” Abbot wrote.

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